No Context: The Dirty Projectors and the Lucky Dragons at the Whitney
By Zach Baron
Of the so-called 1967 Summer of Love, about which there is currently an exhibition at the Whitney entitled Summer of Love: Art of the Psychedelic Era, Joan Didion wrote: “It was the United States of America in the cold late spring of 1967, and the market was steady and the G.N.P. high and a great many articulate people seemed to have a sense of high social purpose and it might have been a spring of brave hopes and national promise, but it was not, and more and more people had the uneasy apprehension that it was not.” The “center was not holding,” Didion wrote, and I’ve always believed her. My father, a teenager in that “cold late spring” though by no means a flower child, never did. Where Didion saw instability, terror, and “uneasy apprehension,” my father saw a genuine if circuitous reaction to a lousy war, and a successful one at that.
As to the decade’s confused legacy, “Music still gives the best sense of it all,” wrote Holland Carter in his review of the Whitney Show, and this is true: it’s the art form to get by far the most mileage out of the era, the thing for which all the psychedelic flyers that hang on the second and third floors of the Whitney were originally advertisements, the movement that inspired the light shows and Avedon candids and video-recorded “happenings” that are all now enshrined and framed and carefully presented at the museum clear through September.
None of the three acts asked by the curators of Summer of Love to perform in their basement two Fridays ago is known for trading in what is indie-rock’s most obvious ongoing Summer of Love descendant, freak-folk, as played by, say, Devendra Banhart. Nor, with the exception of New York poet Bob Holman, were any of the musicians much older than thirty. Yet the slate – Holman, Lucky Dragons, and the Dirty Projectors - turned out to be ingenious, in part because it acknowledged the ambiguous and complicated legacy of that era in a way the actual exhibition does not.
Bob Holman, seen in action, was an obvious choice: in checkerboard vans and a porkpie hat he performed sub-beat poetry, modulating his voice to various cartoonish extremes—“Hey, what’s the use?! The answer’s not even related to the question!” He interpolated the Beatles, repurposed “Revolution” and pushed a young audience’s ironic tolerance to its distant limit. This was the aural equivalent to Janis Joplin’s nearby custom-painted 1965 Porsche 356c Cabriolet: the colorful side, the free-love cultural side, the side of the Fillmore concert hall posters upstairs and of the adjacent air-brushed canvases of the sort that now survive only in Santa Fe, New Mexico, a place where the technique has been lovingly persevered for the purpose of painting colorful portraits of bygone Indian Chiefs.
But Lucky Dragons, the performer alias of Los Angeles’s Luke Fischbeck, worked out a different set of affinities with the same material: less free love and more fucking. Projected behind him as he began his set were images of himself and his girlfriend in the Joshua Tree desert, obscured by washes of neon color. Later the projection would show first Luke and then his girlfriend gently vomiting waves of pastel into each other’s hands. Fischbeck contorted and thrust his hips over the laptop that was spewing the chirps and gurgling swathes of sound Lucky Dragons are known for: his show was a series of undisguised and basically unartful sex moves, and the front row backed off accordingly. And when it did, Fischbeck spat at one of them. Later, while still performing, he would write an apology on paper and carry it over to the kid, who let it go. The moment was more reminiscent of the Janis Joplin that would die in a drug overdose two years after purchasing the 356c Porsche than the Dave Richards brush job that coated it. In the actual Summer of Love show, Peter Saul’s 1967 painting “Saigon” comes closest: an innocent Vietnamese virgin and her family defiled by American soldiers in bright, burning colors.
But if Lucky Dragons or Bob Holman staked out extremes, Brooklyn’s Dirty Projectors were more difficult to pin down—their newest project, Rise Above, recreates Black Flag’s Damaged, track for track. 1981’s Damaged, written explicitly in reaction to the enduring paradigm of sixties rock, becomes the Dirty Projector’s Rise Above, a folksy, harmonious update on Monterey-style pop, with sharper edges. This was also, judging from the suddenly thick crowd, the band most people had come to see. Whether the turnout for Dirty Projectors’ nod pastward indicated more than strong local support – say, that people of my age getting more savvy at parsing the nuance of the decade, or are merely embracing it for the fifteenth or twentieth time – was unclear.
Walking the sprawling two floors at Summer of Love, I was reminded of Fort Thunder, the Providence performance space, dwelling, and commune inhabited by Lightning Bolt, Forcefield, and thousands of other short-lived bands, shut down in 2001 and memorialized in a Rhode Island School of Design Museum exhibition five years later. The show served up a bizarre narrative, telling the story of a music scene that was in fact still alive and well and underway in slightly different warehouses that remained only miles away from the museum. And if the bands weren’t looking back, why should we?